Jeffrey D Sachs’s recommendations

An interview with...

Jeffrey D Sachs on The Millennium Development Goals 

About Jeffrey D Sachs

Jeffrey D Sachs is the director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. From 2002 to 2006, he was director of the UN Millennium Project and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals. Sachs is president and co-founder of Millennium Promise Alliance. He is widely considered to be the leading international economic adviser of his generation. He is author of hundreds of scholarly articles and many books, including the New York Times bestsellers Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet and The End of Poverty.

The leading international economic adviser of his generation and special adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon says we can reduce poverty by devoting just a modest fraction of our vast wealth to the effort

Your first choice is Ethics for the New Millennium by the Dalai Lama.

Yes, I think it is probably right to start with the new millennium of which we have now completed the first decade. A lot of the writing that I am talking about is focused on the idea that we need to do something new in our new millennium and our new century. The Millennium Development Goals are the most specific manifestation of that idea, the objective of really reaching a new level and a new understanding. The Dalai Lama wrote this book not specifically about the Millennium Development Goals but very much in the spirit of the need to create a new global understanding and global ethic, and to make what is now a global society work. 

Of course, I am very attracted to the Dalai Lama for many aspects of his wisdom and Buddhist ideas and overwhelmingly about the need to put compassion at the centre of our lives and at the centre of our global thinking. Not only to help those in need but actually to help ourselves, because it is the core principle of the Dalai Lama that the way to our own happiness is by attentiveness and compassion to others. It is something I believe and it is something which he says the most eloquently and insightfully of anyone in our time. That is the core message of his ethics.

You have travelled all over the world – do you see his teachings in practice on a daily basis or do you wish they were something there was more of?

Well, I have been to about 130 countries with my work over the years and of course I have seen great acts of compassion wherever I have gone. But I have also seen the opposite, in blinding cruelty and the astounding neglect of those in need. What I have seen with my own eyes is the capacity, if we have an open spirit and an empathetic approach, to bridge any of the gulfs that exist in the world, whether it’s racial, class, ethnic, linguistic or religious. I have seen co-operation of the most wondrous kinds that span the widest gaps imaginable in terms of the backgrounds of the people involved. 

For example, when I have had the chance to work in remote pastoralistic communities in the Horn of Africa the human connection that I have observed between my colleagues and the global pastoralists is wonderful. They might not have a lot of common background in life experience but the human connection is so powerful and palpable and so inspiring that for me it epitomises what we should be able to achieve anywhere. We are working in a lot of areas with a lot of conflict but I feel none of that tension or pressure or hate because in any part of the world when people are approached with respect and dignity I think the human connection is overpowering.

Your next choice is We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century.

We the Peoples is another great document by another great individual, Kofi Annan. It is the document that the former Secretary-General put before the world’s leaders at the start of the millennium. It is a powerful statement not only about the kind of world that we want to live in but that we can build. So it is a far-reaching document about economic development, human rights, political freedom, mutual respect and environmental sustainability. 

Of course, I am especially attracted to this powerful document because it is the place where the world leaders adopted the Millennium Development Goals. It’s in that context that Kofi Annan challenged the world leaders to adopt specific time-bound development goals. And they were adopted in the Millennium Summit in 2000 and that started this 15-year process of which we are now in the tenth year.

And how do you feel ten years on: are you hopeful about the progress or do you think there is still much to do?

Of course, one can’t be satisfied that we have done what we set out to do because the world proved so easily and tragically distracted by war and by short-term crises that it dropped the ball and the longer-term development possibilities. So the world lost a lot of time on the Millennium Development Goals during the last ten years, but there has also been tremendous progress in many, many areas in things like malaria control and the reduction of measles. There has been better coverage for immunisation and more children in school and improvements in agriculture in many places. 

Often what we are seeing is a breakthrough that shows how the goals can be achieved, but the breakthrough isn’t reaching the number of people that need to be reached. So when we come to this summit in New York, the good examples are very, very powerful and they span all eight of the Millennium Development Goals. They show what works, how fast progress is made, the breakthrough that we can have, but at the same time we know that certain of these achievements still only cover a small portion of the people in need and that is why the progress has been much less that it needs to be.

The reason for bringing world leaders together, of course, is both to help show them what should and can be done and secondly to get a renewed dedication to follow it through, and that is what we are hoping to accomplish now.

What about your next book, Manifesto: Global Economic Ethic by Hans Küng?

Hans Küng is a theologian who is one of the world’s leading theological scholars and someone who I greatly admire. Once again, it really is about the core idea that we are living in a global society. We are not just a collection of individual nations or still less individual communities but we are a truly interconnected global society.

What Küng has done, with a lot of colleagues and building on a lifetime of work where he has studied all the major religions, is to put forward the proposition that during the last 20 years at the core of all these great religions, despite their frequent conflicts, there is actually a common set of values which can be the basis for a true global ethic. And, of course, I admire the tremendous learning that goes into this because it is not merely a high sentiment, it is actually based on a lifetime of thought and study.

But it also comes to a very practical point, which is that in this interconnected world we need a shared set of values and we are often deeply misled into believing that we face a fundamental clash that is irreparable and that we have irreconcilable differences, when in fact what Küng is saying is no, that is not the case. 

Even when it comes to the religious traditions, which seem to sometimes tear us apart, we can find a common base and in very practical areas, especially in our economic lives, in what we regard as fair and as basic needs and so forth. So I admire this effort very much and I believe that his text can provide a practical platform for business.

I am still trying to work out what the connection is between John F Kennedy’s American University Peace Speech and the Millennium Development Goals?

This is my favourite speech from President Kennedy so I think it is always worth reading! But it is a very, very important speech in our history because of its demonstration of statecraft in the finest and most important way. The speech was given in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world was perilously close to nuclear war and we needed an active approach to break through. So President Kennedy decided he needed to do something as leader of the United States and as a human being to bring the world back from the abyss, and the approach that he took was to try to negotiate a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. 

He wrote this speech as an explanation of what he had in mind. It really is a brilliant speech, especially because what he says is not a list of commands for the Soviet Union but he calls upon Americans to rethink their own ideas and principles and he says that he depends on Americans and their ability and confidence to understand the other side. 

So what I really like about this is that he is saying both to the American people and to the Soviet people that we want peace but we understand this is a matter of our responsibility first, and it was such a compelling and powerful statement that when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev heard the speech he said that this was the finest speech by an American president since Roosevelt, and they signed a treaty a few weeks later. 

The speech has a wonderful paragraph in it, which for me is the most beautiful and eloquent statement about global society. Kennedy says, ‘Let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.’

To my mind those few sentences summarise the ethic that we need if we are going to find our way to the Millennium Development Goals and find our way to peace. I commend this speech to everybody.

Well, I can clearly see the link now. So let’s finish with your own book, The End of Poverty

The reason I put this on the list is because it is my understanding of what we can accomplish from the point of view of an economist, a pragmatist and somebody who is involved day to day in practical problem-solving. The book is an attempt to put forward this proposition that we have in our hands now the means to end extreme poverty within our generation. We are the first generation that can do this.

This has been a goal for humanity which has been viewed as out of reach but we actually, literally and practically can do it, and that is because we are living in a period of astounding technological capacity, of great wealth and knowledge about systems such as food production – all of these are things which can solve extreme poverty. 

And I am trying in the book to set up a practical proposition by which, if we organise ourselves appropriately at local and global level, if we devote just a modest fraction of our vast wealth to this effort, not only will we achieve these development goals but we will also see our way to the end of extreme poverty by the end of 2025. 

And I believe that both goals are bold but realistic even though the world has a capacity to temporise. I argue both in this book and also in Common Wealth, the successor of this book, that ending extreme poverty not only, as the Dalai Lama referenced, would make us feel better and help us to achieve a higher level of happiness, but it would also help us to find a way to peace itself. This is because, as I explain in both books, the link between extreme poverty and conflict is a strong link. Most of the places in the world that are conflict zones or havens for unrest and even terror are very poor societies that have been broken by drought, disease and hunger. 

If we go to the fore of these challenges and help to solve them we will also find that we are achieving physical security as well by reducing tremendously the amount of conflict in the world.

You have your critics who say that your theories can’t work, but your supporters cite your ‘can do’ attitude amidst a sea of pessimistic economists. What do you think it is about you and your experiences that makes you such an optimist?

I think it is both the things that I have seen and the things that I have been fortunate enough to help do. One of the anniversaries of 2010 for me is ten years after I gave a speech in Durban, South Africa calling for a global fund to fight Aids, and within those ten years of working with Kofi Annan and many others that fund came into being. It helped to keep millions and millions of people alive who otherwise would have died. It became a fulcrum for malaria control and for TB control and it has been a way to show many sceptics what can be accomplished. 

There is still a big effort required to meet the needs of all people who are affected by HIV and malaria but the progress has been tremendous, and I can tell you, ten years ago, before this effort existed at all, people were saying it was all impossible. That shows what can be done and I have seen that kind of reality in so many places that I suppose that from experience as well as temperament I am bound to be an optimist!

Books by Jeffrey D Sachs

Good choices? What's missing? Write your thoughts below